UM tosses book at freshmen New students given copies of work on Lincoln

August 24, 1993|By Thomas W. Waldron | Thomas W. Waldron,Staff Writer

The 3,200 freshmen heading to the University of Maryland College Park this fall have been getting the usual orientation material, including a course catalog, the campus cheating policy and the rules on drugs and alcohol.

This year for the first time, the college is giving out something extra -- a book.

By the time school starts, each freshman will have received a free copy of "Lincoln at Gettysburg," for which Garry Wills won the Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction this year.

The goal is to remind students that, above all, college is supposed to be about books.

"It's designed to give everybody at the institution a common experience," says College Park President William E. Kirwan. "It will undoubtably provoke discussions of serious topics."

The book giveaway has been a staple at some colleges for years, but never at Maryland's flagship campus.

Enough professors have added the book to their reading lists that at least 80 percent of this year's freshman class will be required to read it.

There will also be campus events related to the book, among them a contest to rewrite the Gettysburg Address -- using no more than Lincoln's 183 words -- to address problems between the sexes.

The book is part of a renewed effort to make the sprawling campus of 32,000 students a little less intimidating to newcomers. Trying to make the campus more comfortable and more elite, the university deliberately cut the size of its freshman classes by about 20 percent in the late 1980s.

A new program, "First Year Focus," will give each freshman a chance to take at least one small-group course taught by an experienced professor. Some will be able to enroll in a "cluster" of three related courses with the same group of students.

"Usually, the strategy here has been that you start out in big classes and end up in small ones," said Ira Berlin, acting dean of undergraduate studies. "We've kind of inverted the pyramid. We want professors and students to get to know each other right from the beginning, for each student to have at least one person they can touch base with."

The idea for the book giveaway came from the Student Government Association.

"At such a large campus it's hard to get a feeling of community," said Jennifer Kelly, the association president. "We enter as freshmen and go through orientation and don't have another common experience until graduation."

She and another student leader picked the Lincoln book after conferring with faculty members, administrators and students. Edged out were Frederick Douglass' autobiography and John Stuart Mill's 19th-century treatise "On Liberty," which was rejected because the language was considered possibly too daunting.

"The Dead" by James Joyce, though well liked, was ruled out simply because of its downbeat title.

"They came up with something that is interesting and engaging," Dr. Berlin said. Bill Ligouri, an incoming freshman from northern New Jersey, has already made it through the prologue and a few chapters, mainly at the prodding of his father, a history buff.

"It's not a bad book," said Mr. Ligouri, 18, although he doubts many of his soon-to-be classmates have discovered that.

"I bet a lot of people have been just looking at the book all summer and thinking, 'This is my last summer at home,' " he said. "They probably haven't been reading it."

The book giveaway and a related lecture series will cost close to $30,000, with $10,000 coming from the Student Government Association, Ms. Kelly said. Almost every department on campus chipped in a little for the project.

One person who has not joined in the spirit of the project is Mr. Wills, who has turned down an offer to speak on campus, despite the college's purchase of about 3,600 copies of his book.

Mr. Wills did not return a reporter's telephone call.

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